The day the music died

Hanger 13, Scotland's top rave venue, has been closed after three Ecstasy-related deaths. Many people, including a Tory MP, believe the club was unfairly blamed. John Arlidge reports
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Nine o'clock on Saturday night in the seaside town of Ayr. As the last day-trippers head for home, teenage clubbers gather on the esplanade. They are wearing Lycra shorts and T-shirts, and turn their backs to the windtearing off the Firth of Clyde. Soon they head for Bobby Jones and Club De Mar, the town's leading nightclubs.

On the way, they pass Ayr's elegant Pavilion Ballroom, a turreted monument to Victorian gentility flanked by bowling greens. Not that this is any longer the home of the panama hat and the tea dance. A banner unfurled across the frontreveals that the people's palace is now Hanger 13, Scotland's most fashionable hardcore rave venue.

Tonight the dance floor is empty. The queues of shivering youngsters, who used to come from as far away as Belfast and Newcastle to dance all night at what they called the "Club from the Future", have vanished. Two weeks ago, when Hanger 13's entertainment licence was revoked after the deaths of three young ravers, managers closed the doors. They may never reopen.

The decision by Kyle and Carrick Licensing Board to shut down the club has provoked protest. Local clubbers and health professionals say managers have been unfairly blamed for the deaths which began in April last year, when John Nisbet, 18, from New Cumnock in Ayrshire, collapsed on the dance floor after taking one-and-a-half Ecstasy tablets. Andrew Dick, 19, from Glasgow, died in May, and three months later, Andrew Stoddart, 20, from Rigside in Lanarkshire, fell into a coma after taking three- and-a-half "Es".

Ecstasy-related deaths arerare, and for there to be three at one club was unprecedented. The inevitable round of hand-wringing followed. But death requires retribution. Last summer, Strathclyde Police complained to the licensing board that the club had become a focus for drugs dealers. That marked the beginning of the end of the Hanger.

At a hearing last November, the licensing board agreed to police requests to suspend the club's entertainments licence. The managers, Fraser MacIntyre, 22, and his 49-year-old mother, Christine Ridha, successfully appealed. But in March, when the club's late licence came up for its annual review, the board refused to grant the usual extension. The clerk said members of the board had "acknowledged police fears and have taken this action to avoid further deaths and a general threat to public safety".

What infuriates Mr MacIntyre, Mrs Ridha and local ravers is that Hanger 13 has been forced to shut even though the official inquiry into the Ecstasy- related deaths cleared the club of blame. After a 10-day government-ordered inquiry in February, Sheriff Neil Gow QC said that although Ecstasy was available at the club, managers had taken every reasonable precaution to combat the pushers, prevent youngsters smuggling drugs in and improve safety. Sheriff Gow pointed to the owners' decision to install spy cameras, employ undercover security guards, hire paramedics and have at least one ambulance on permanent standby. Mr MacIntyre and Mrs Ridha had "to a greater or lesser extent" satisfied all safety criteria, he said.

So why close the club? Mr MacIntyre and Mrs Ridha say they are victims of a public and political backlash. "After any deaths people say: 'Something must be done.' The question is what. We believe the authorities have gone for the wrong target here," Mr MacIntyre says. "Young people want to go to clubs. Closing Hanger 13 will not stop that. Unfortunately, a large number of those people want to take drugs - either before they go out or inside the club. Closing us down will not stop that either. What it will do is deprive thousands of people of a popular club and cost 40 people their jobs."

Mr MacIntyre denies charges that the club's notoriety made it a focus for drugs dealers. "We were the safest club in Scotland. Our security was tight. But without strip-searching every entrant, it is impossible - impossible - to keep a club 100 per cent drugs free."

The blame for the deaths, he insists, lies not with the club, but with the pushers and the youngsters themselves. "Hanger 13 did not give those three boys drugs. It was the dealers," he says. "And the dealers did not force them to take 'E', they chose to do so. They were old enough to know - or should have known - the dangers.

"It is not nice to work in a place where people have died, and if I genuinely felt Hanger 13 was in some way to blame I would close the club tomorrow. But we are not. Putting us out of business will simply mean that the problem will go elsewhere."

For Mr MacIntyre and Mrs Ridha, the decision is devastating. Hanger 13 is now closed and McCall's Entertainments, the family firm that has been running Ayr Pavilion since 1973, faces bankruptcy.

Mrs Ridha explains: "We have bills for running costs to pay, legal fees for the licensing board battles and much more besides. Our costs run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, and we are being asked to pay at a time when the board has cut off our main source of income. I can't see how we can carry on. We have done nothing wrong but we are staring ruin in the face. It's so unfair."

Criticism of the decision by Kyle and Carrick is not confined to Ayr. Hanger 13 has won some unusual allies. Robert Stevenson, manager of the Hanger's local rival, the Metro in Saltcoats, says closure sets a bad precedent.

"Clubs across Britain have a problem with drugs. They can be hidden and smuggled in, or youngsters can simply take them before they arrive. There is always a risk of a tragedy. But closing down every club where there is an incident is not the answer. If someone takes drugs in a shopping centre, you don't close that down.

"We have to improve education and get the message across that drugs can be lethal. And one of the best ways to do that is in clubs themselves."

George Foulkes, the Labour MP for nearby Cumnock, has mounted a campaign to close Hanger 13, but Phil Gallie, the Conservative MP for Ayr, has publicly backed Mr MacIntyre and Mrs Ridha. In February, he appeared on stage before a crowd of cheering youngsters to support attempts to keep the club open. He says he is "disappointed" by the board's decision. Ravers have nicknamed him MC Phil MP.

Mr MacIntyre and Mrs Ridha are glad of the support. But they fear it has come too late. Hanger 13, they say, is dead.

On Ayr seafront, ravers react gloomily to the news. Jim Grey, 22, from Kilmarnock, who used to go to the club every Saturday night, accuses board members of "knowing little and caring less about the rave scene. If someone takes an overdose at another club this Saturday, their chances of survival will be less than at the Hanger, where safety was taken seriously.

"If that person dies, the licensing board should hang its head. It's the drugs they should be tackling, not the clubs. Now we are forced to go other clubs where they play the sort of music you hear on the radio. It's all wrong."